Sunday is Father’s Day, and jockey Gerard Melancon has much to celebrate.
And he will, with a family cookout at his broodmare farm in Scott.
Not only did Melancon recently reach 4,500 career victories, becoming only the 44th person in North American racing history to do so, but the 49-year-old Rayne native reached the milestone at Evangeline Downs with older son Jansen competing alongside him.
Also, younger son Jonas graduated from Louisiana-Lafayette this spring.
And most importantly, there’s a new addition to the Melancon household, thanks to Jansen and his fiancée, Brooke Darbonne: first grandson Emmitt, who’s going on 7 months old.
If you can judge pride in being a Paw-Paw and Maw-Maw by the number of Twitter and Facebook photos Melancon and wife Annette have posted of themselves with Emmitt, they’ve got to be near the top.
“It’s unexplainable how much we love him,” Melancon said. “We’re just ecstatic, because he’s brought a whole new joy in our life. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me — better than having my own kids.”
That Melancon would be in such a state of happiness in his life is something he could not have imagined on Father’s Day in 1989.
That was when Melancon conned Annette into getting him out of a rehab center on a visitor’s pass. It was on the premise that he could see Jansen, then a toddler. Instead, Melancon drove straight to a daiquiri shop.
It was the latest in a long line of failed attempts to get sober. And even though he was only 22, it looked like the final straw in an alcohol- and crack-fueled downward spiral.
It wasn’t just destroying a career that started five years earlier, when Melancon was considered the next great Cajun jockey. It was destroying his family as well.
Melancon acknowledges that drinking was a big part of his life, all the way back to the seventh grade. He once stole antique shotguns from his father, George, who was between terms as chief of police in Rayne, to sell them so he could buy more crack.
“We stayed up many a night waiting to hear if he’d gotten killed or something,” George Melancon said. “He just couldn’t get off that stuff.”
Melancon would stay away from home for days, leaving Annette, barely out of her teens, to fend for herself and Jansen, although she always managed to track him down.
“I was crazy as a road lizard,” Melancon said.
That line gets a laugh now, but there was nothing funny about it then. Convinced he could not conquer his addictions, Melancon kept a loaded .44 Magnum next to his bed, contemplating pulling the trigger. Only the memory of his older sister committing suicide several years before at age 16 kept him from doing it.
“I couldn’t put my parents through that again,” he said.
From that low point, Melancon tried one more rehab center, this one in Little Rock, Arkansas.
He entered July 5, 1989. He hasn’t had a drink or done drugs since.
“Things were about as rough you can get,” said Annette, who had met Melancon seven years earlier when they were both 15. “But I knew deep down he was a good person and, even in the worst times, he was good to Jansen and me. That’s why, when he came out of rehab the last time and told me that was it, I believed him.”
Still, Annette didn’t marry him for another five months.
“I was pretty much a lost cause,” Melancon said. “But she never lost faith in me. They don’t make women like that anymore.”
Melancon may have been sober, but his career trajectory had taken a severe blow.
Involvement in a race-fixing incident at the Fair Grounds in 1985 — he testified against the instigator to keep his license in Louisiana — cost him the trust of trainers. And when it comes to getting mounts, trust far outranks ability.
And while Melancon had success in the state, winning riding titles at Evangeline and Delta Downs, difficulty in being licensed outside the state — particularly in Kentucky, which kept him off three potential Kentucky Derby mounts — stymied him from reaching heights like Cajun contemporaries Calvin Borel and Kent Desormeaux.
Still, even though he’s nearly 50, Melancon has been in the top 100 nationally in victories and winnings since 2008. His mounts over his 32-year career have earned more than $76 million.
Earlier this year, Melancon was a finalist for the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award for maintaining high levels of personal and professional conduct on and off the track. But the Hall of Fame, where Eddie Delahoussaye, Borel and Desormeaux are enshrined, isn’t going to happen.
“I think about it sometimes,” Melancon said. “But nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. What I went through made a man out of me.”
And, as Melancon points out, there are other things he considers more important — like his family.
Jansen, 28, has ridden thoroughbreds since 2010 after starting out on quarter horses. He even gave bull riding a try in high school, much to his parents’ dismay. (“If you fall off a horse, it keeps running,” Melancon said. “A bull might come back after you.”)
And while Jansen knows of his father’s personal struggles, it never gave him pause about following in his riding silks. Jonas would have, too, but at 5-foot-10, that wasn’t possible.
“The first time I breezed, I fell in love with it,” said Jansen, who lives near his parents and usually rides to the racetrack with his dad. “I never think about the danger or how stressful it can be. My dad’s always in a good mood. He makes everything look easy.”
Obviously, it’s not.
Being a jockey may be the hardest job of any athlete. Besides semi-starving yourself to make weight and the constant threat of injury, there’s the pressure to keep fickle trainers and owners happy, which basically means winning as often as possible.
As Desormeaux, who has had his own well-publicized abuse problems, put it, “You’ve to smile at everybody, even if you don’t like ’em.”
Small wonder that so many jockeys have demons to deal with — and some never overcome them. Said Melancon, who regularly counsels young jockeys and remains a regular at AA and NA meetings: “I’ve had to bury a lot of my friends. A lot of ’em.”
That’s also why Melancon has been open with his sons about his past problems and why he’s happy to report they have given him no such concerns.
“How about that!” he exclaims about Jonas graduating from college.
With Jansen, Melancon also has been a professional mentor.
“He’s helped me win a lot of races, because he can tell me things you’d never think of as a younger rider,” Jansen said. “It’s like looking for your way out of the pack at the last turn. You have to be patient until you get to the last 1?16th. ... We talk about what happened just about every night.”
The elder Melancon returns the compliment.
“Jansen’s very smart, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my son,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody else out there who can finish as strong. He’s the whole package.”
That doesn’t mean the Melancons aren’t competitive when they’re in the same race, which is what they’re being paid to do, and sometimes when they’re not, such as playing bourré at home or in the jockeys’ room.
“We like to beat each other,” Melancon said. “When Jansen was starting out, he got me by a head in a $100,000 race at Delta Downs. The only good thing was that our horses had the same owner, so everybody was splitting the money anyway.”
Although he’s approaching 50, Melancon said he wants to keep riding as long as he’s healthy and enjoys it.
And unlike many addicts, he said he no longer faces the temptation of relapsing, although attending AA and NA meetings are important to him.
“It would be nice to get to 5,000 (victories),” he said. “I never dreamed I’d get this far, especially at the place where I was stuck, so I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
In fact, Melancon’s biggest concern may be finding enough time to spend with Emmitt while also maintaining his devotion to his profession — even if he’s taking fewer rides than when he was younger.
Melancon said he wouldn’t mind seeing Emmitt become a jockey one day, although Annette said dealing with two generations of riders is enough. There are already plans for a pony as soon as Emmitt can sit on one.
“My husband’s not a very sentimental man,” Annette said. “And he didn’t get to spend a lot of time with the kids, because he was working all the time.
“Having Emmitt around means the world to him. He’s just all smiles.”